It’s not rocket science: Lack of psychological safety, a term that describes a combined feeling of trust, belonging and ability to take interpersonal risks, can be debilitating, even disabling, for employees who experience it. Elon Musk seems immune to the idea that he should be fostering psychological safety at Twitter. It’s not in his nature to nurture. But that’s history now. It’s how he started his takeover and likely how he will continue to manage the company.
While 90% of CEO’s surveyed in a recent McKinsey report regret getting off to a rough start as CEO, Musk isn’t likely to lament making tone-deaf demands. Musk has made fun of or bullied former leaders, invoking his freedom of speech (not only internally, but for the world to see on Twitter). He’s alienated advertisers and unceremoniously dumped thousands of employees in key jobs, including the accessibility and safety teams.
You may care very little about what’s happening at Twitter now—or didn’t before Musk bought the company for $44 billion. This is still a story to watch. It reflects how unhealthy leadership impacts the immediate well-being of individual employees. It also shows how marginalized groups, such as #DisabilityTwitter, who count on social media for community, will lose a key support system.
Burnout, grief, depression and suicide are at epidemic levels. Our nation’s health depends on rejecting practices that put everyday workers in a state of constant fear and anxiety. It is so important that industries struggling to innovate are sharing their solutions at employer health innovation roundtables. These streamline and push through obstacles to improve the well-being of employees. Innovation can be pragmatic and profitable and give employees purpose, but that doesn’t seem to be the case with Twitter.
A Note About Creative Destruction and Business
I understand the theory of creative destruction. I embrace it. But whatever business you are in, I hope you recognize that creative destruction does not have to feel like death by a thousand cuts. Twitter’s current leadership issues are an opportunity to think carefully about the effect that management has on employee well-being. (And yes, to their credit, many leaders are now acutely aware that the well-being of their employees must be prioritized because it impacts the bottom line.) I don’t love or hate Elon Musk. I don’t know him. But I cannot ignore the example and tone he is setting.
Here are a few suggestions for empowering employees against the 90% who get off on the wrong foot and the untold others who embrace bad management practices without regret. Maybe sharing these grim examples will fire up the minds of more positive innovators who are thinking differently about health, well-being, accommodations and disability, which will one day affect us all in some way.
Know How Fast Leadership Styles Travel
Abusive leadership rolls through like a hurricane and sweeps up everyone in its path. Studies show that “mistreatment by an immediate boss can encourage peers to engage in similar unethical behaviors, leading employees feeling emotionally exhausted, which ultimately results in job insecurity concerns,” according to one Frontiers in Psychology Study. Thankfully the opposite is also true. Leaders who “share their vision and activate their inner skills” have a positive effect on workers. Positive leadership is transformational. I’ve seen this in action personally. I have had marginal bosses, but they fade in comparison to the woman who found me a room to breast feed that wasn’t a closet. Or the the vice president who handed out The Art of Possibility during our first tough week in a newly created department. She popped her head into our offices often to ask us if we were looking for opportunity. Her enthusiasm was contagious. Sure, enthusiasm is difficult to manufacture during chaos. I would choose it over a persistently angry or sardonic mindset like the one Musk favors.
Beware The Toll of Living in Constant Crisis
Working ‘extremely hardcore hours’ (Musk’s words) while being given little respect or sense of purpose wilts employee motivation. And that’s temporary. Worse still is that stressful working conditions can impact our health, including causing chronic disease, pain, emotional trauma, and grief. Period. You’re not a snowflake if you believe the science of abusive power being a health threat. But you can’t flake on taking matters into your own hands. “Team leaders should explicitly articulate and encourage the norms they want the team to adopt, but remember that actions speak louder than their words, especially when it comes to creating a climate of psychological safety,” according to a ReWork report created with Google.
Being Heard Creates Psychological Safety
Musk has brought in his own team and let much of the original staff go. Whether this will work for him or not remains to be seen. He is scrambling. To avoid crisis, explains Sarah Kleinman, a partner at McKinsey, it’s optimal to build networks of teams. When Google analyzed teams to determine why some were effective and others were not, the research showed the power of teams in which everyone is allowed a voice. This seems counterintuitive in a crisis but in fact, it gives people the agency and sense of belonging that is so crucial to good mental health in general. Healthy teams—healthy people. It may be an oversimplification, but it’s a true one. It comes back to psychological safety again. “Psychological safety underpins successful networks of teams by enabling the rapid sharing of information to address changing goals,” writes Kleinman and her team. “This fosters an environment in which individuals and teams can rapidly test ideas, iterate, and learn from mistakes.”
Ultimately, I believe there is a strong connection between healthy minds and bodies and healthy company performance. More research in the coming years will, I think show company growth can be predicted, in part, by the strength of the benefits and work life balance they offer. As the days pass and the fate of Twitter teeters in the balance, I will be looking at it through the lens of psychological safety. I will not, however, hold my breath and imagine that Elon Musk will be make ‘healthy employees, healthy business’ his new motto. I’ll just leave this link here for him in case he changes his mind.